Book Review: Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point

If I ever write a popular environmental book, I am going to call it “I Hate Thoreau’s Bastard Children: Why Modern Environmental Writing Sucks.” The pernicious influence of Transcendentalism lingers like a poison oak rash every time someone gets an urge to write about nature. I’ve occasionally thought of making a drinking game as the only way to get through the viscous stew of self-consciously elegiac lyrical inanity that makes up the vast majority of middlebrow environmental writing. Description of writer’s idyllic childhood in nature? Drink! Description of previously teeming life now grown sparse? Drink! (Do two shots if passenger pigeons or buffalo are mentioned). Token interview with charismatic fisherman/indigenous person just trying to get by in a changing world? Drink! Despite a liver hardened by years of marine biology, I just can’t drink that much before bed.

So I don’t read popular environmental books if I can possibly avoid it. But I decided to read and review Carl Safina’s latest book, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World out of pure homesickness. I hadn’t read any Safina before, but when I saw that his book took place on the eastern tip of Long Island (just a bit south of my home waters in the Gulf of Maine), I desperately longed to feel the pulse of the seasons, however vicariously. The poor publicist who sent me the book had no idea what he was in for – my dislike for modern Transcendentalism plus my homesickness is a recipe for severe crankiness.

Safina does indeed devote large sections of the The View from Lazy Point to the Environmental Studies 101 fluff I was expecting. Standard-issue Thoreau and Aldo Leopold quotes abound, along with a lot of preaching to the choir – a reader who is interested in 300 pages on the wildlife of Long Island Sound is unlikely to have an Safina-inspired epiphany about the evils of corporate oligarchy or the wastefulness of mindless consumerism. And Safina frequently falls into an overwrought pit of despair, especially with his rhetorical questions. (One example: When contemplating the vanished salmon runs of the US North Atlantic, he asks “But what memory has recorded that; where in the rocks is it written?” All I could think was “Um, maybe you could read the history with sediment cores? Does that count as rock?”)

To my surprise and delight, I also loved parts of the book. Safina is at his very best when bringing his science background to bear on his love of nature. I especially enjoyed his explanations of energy flow, such as the forests of Alaska built on generations of bear-flung salmon carcasses or the Caribbean beaches built on centuries of parrotfish poop. I think the very best section of the book is the part on the complex and non-intuitive relationship of terns, bluefish, climate, and habitat. Safina skillfully interweaves the terns’ natural history with his own work and observations, and at the end perfectly captures some of my feelings towards science.

So to me, terns and Bluefish always seem like old friends coming home. Few people realize it, but the most satisfying part of science is the intimacy.

Many of Safina’s old friends – bufflehead ducks, horseshoe crabs, rampaging bluefish  – are my old friends too, and I was enraptured by the march of the seasons at Lazy Point.

I also like Safina when he’s being forthright and cranky, channeling Edward Abbey instead of William Wordsworth. Safina isn’t a holier-than-thou type – he occasionally struggles with his own rules, such as his desire to conquer a huge mako shark. He’s also not afraid to take on animal rights activists (“…seemingly unconscious of the big picture”), Alaskan anti-government people (“whining, selfish hypocrites”), or duck hunters that throw away their kills (“phonies [that]…act out a ritual that once had meaning but has been hollowed out by changing times and their own hollow heads.”)

But what spoke to me most in The View from Lazy Point was Safina’s love for his surroundings, despite their altered and often depressing condition. He refuses to turn his back on nature, even though we have reduced so many things to shadows and ghosts of their former selves.

Even with so fine a start to today, imperfections are evident. I know this, though: this morning, full of such rich, deep, savage beauty, where predators and their prey perform their rituals as they always have, indicates that there remain on Earth some remnants of a long-lasting world, some yardstick.

The View from Lazy Point is a loving window into this long-lasting world, interwoven with an introduction to major environmental problems and a very general overview of the economic and social forces that cause them. While it could be used as an introduction to modern environmental issues, I think it is most suited for northeasterners trying to connect with the natural world around them. After all, the glories that Safina describes are just a short train or car ride away for more than 30 million people. If more of these people get outside and tell their representatives that they care about conservation, maybe there will be less of a need for elegies.

Ooops, did I just end this review with a nonspecific call to action? Drink!

For another take on The View from Lazy Point see Andrew’s review at Southern Fried Science.

16 Replies to “Book Review: Carl Safina’s The View from Lazy Point”

  1. I realize I may be better off to keep mum about this, but Thoreau and the other transcendentalists were actually some of my first literary loves when I encountered them, and I still adore Walden. I can totally understand that it’s not for everyone, but, well, it is for me. I also admire and aspire to a great deal of modern environmental writing, from David Quammen and Tim Flannery to Tom Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Also Safina, of course, so I’m glad you were able to enjoy him. I’m really sorry that you haven’t been able to find anything else you can even tolerate, though.

    (Can we still be friends even though I like Thoreau?)

  2. I, um, still read Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, Thoreau quite religiously too. YOU’RE NOT ALONE DANNA!!

  3. In science and environmental circles, I know that I am in a very small minority. It’s not actually Thoreau himself that I hate (I like “Walden Pond”) – 1) it’s the complete domination of the Transcendentalist perspective in environmental circles (Safina certainly comes from the Trascendentalist line), and 2) BAD wannabe Thoreaus (not gonna name names but you know you’ve read some of this stuff).

    I think this stylistic monoculture has actually been damaging to conservation, because it privileges “wilderness” over “civilization” (look, one paragraph drawing on my humanities background and I’m already back to the scare quotes!), and creates a dicotomy, when in fact we have and have always had a continuum. The concept of wilderness has specific religious and social values that not everyone agrees with – and this one reason why environmentalism remains controversial.

    For a far more articulate take on the problems with Transcendentalism, see William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.”

  4. I’m with you. The whole of it makes me want to vomit. I like a little edge to my thinkers and writers. The early American movement of Trans. was actually pretty cool. I like Emerson. I just don’t bathe in his light. Same with Leopold, and Lopez, Gary Snyder, Rachel Carson. So what do I want from my nature writers? And is there such a thing as a nature writer anymore? Or is it all environmental? I’m a commercial fisherman. Environmentalist make me nervous. They know too much about policy, about rules and regulations. Too many academic degrees, not enough time getting their feet wet. I guess I like a writer who has spent some time in the field. Has gone somewhere and brings news back–and the news that they bring back is told in a cool way, with honest language, not watered down prose of things none of us could give a shit about. I’m also tired of the exotic–how everyone wants to be the first to pry a frozen bug off the northern side of Mt. Everest. I’m with you all the way Safina: I love leatherback turtles and sooty shearwaters, I just don’t need every descriptive adjective to tell me about their lonely descent to 1000 fathoms or their lonely flight to the southern Ocean. God damn. I get it. The animals a cool beyond measure. But long paragraphs of florid language are enough for me to throw the book across the room. (Unless it is done very well. My own writing often makes me want to vomit.) I don’t have all the answers; I’m not even sure if I have one. But I do think that Safina has thought about himself an awful lot every since he wrote Song for a Blue Ocean. He’s here to stay. He makes more money than I do, has more followers on Twitter. I bet his lawn is green with care, that he buys mostly local food and never shrimp from Thailand.

  5. I think you’re confusing the ‘romantic’ tradition of nature writing in America with Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists are much more than Thoreau’s “Walden” and they certainly didn’t all write like him (see Emerson’s “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”) So if you want to continue on this track, missy, I think you’re going to have to explain exactly what it is about the movement of Transcendentalism that you see affecting Carl Safina’s writing.

    Otherwise, what you’re really saying is there’s a style of writing that started with Thoreau that you hate, which is totally valid, but not the same thing. Did you hate Bill Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis”? James Trefil’s “A Scientist in the City”? Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature”? Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Manifesto”? There’s alot of modern environmental writing you’re lumping into one category.

    And on John’s point, I think Linda Greenlaw’s books indulge in the same kind of elegiac, romantic writing Miriam is annoyed by. So it can happen to fishermen, too.

  6. Amen! Though because I’m in the tech world, I think we could use some of the insights that came from the anti-Progress (capital P) authors of the Transcendentalist and neo-Transcendentalist traditions. But just a salting.

  7. The ‘romantic’ tradition of nature writing in America STARTED with Transcendentalism, which was itself heavily influenced by European Romanticism. You are right that they are more than Thoreau (Thoreau is the best known today, but Emerson was more influential at the time) – they included everything from the Hudson River School of painting to your friend Alcott’s utopian theories to Spiritualism – but it is nearly impossible to overstate their influence.

    You asked me to explain “what it is about the movement of Transcendentalism that you see affecting Carl Safina’s writing.” Simple – one of the main tenants of Transcendentalism is that the Divine can be reached through emotional contemplation of nature. From Emerson’s famous essay “Nature”:

    “That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions, but when man has worshipped him intellectually, the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.”

    The idea that contemplating nature is good for the soul, that divine knowledge can be reached through emotion – is one of our Transcendentalist legacies, and a direct rebellion against the more cerebral neo-classical views of the Enlightenment. In his book, Safina also talks about how he feels close to the divine in nature (I don’t have “Lazy Point” with me right now, but it’s near the end), and that is the direct influence of Transcendentalists.

    The other influence of Transcendentalism, as I mention above in comment #4, is the separation of wilderness from civilization. Previous romantic poetry often venerated pastoral (e.g., human-dominated) landscapes – for example, Virgil’s Eclogues. In contrast, Transcendentalists sought out landscapes without any people. Again, from Emerson:

    “Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him? Yet this may show us what discord is between man and nature, for you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by. The poet finds something ridiculous in his delight, until he is out of the sight of men.”

    These two threads – the emotional contemplation of nature and nature as the not-human – run through much of American environmental thought. I wouldn’t say that you can lump every piece of environmental writing into this category (I haven’t read the books you list), but I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a modern environmental writer who was NOT heavily influenced by Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Ed Abbey, Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, etc.

  8. Oh, and to bait the science blogging crowd, Emerson was none too fond of the scientific method. Next time I have a meeting with my committee I am going to tell them that there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility and see how that goes.

    Again, from Nature:

    “Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and, by the very knowledge of functions and processes, to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole. The savant becomes unpoetic. But the best read naturalist who lends an entire and devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to learn of his relation to the world, and that it is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility. He will perceive that there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; that a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments. “

  9. Miriam, I realize that your complaints about modern environmental writing were not necessarily a call for recommendations, but if you are interested in looking for stuff that “doesn’t suck” then, of the four authors I listed in my first comment, I would particularly recommend Quammen. Song of the Dodo is of course his classic, and epic, tome, but for shorter reads you could pick up the book of essays, Wild Thoughts From Wild Places. Although you may balk at the (over?)use of “wild” in the title, I really think you might like his writing. His attention to scientific detail is remarkable, he doesn’t drag in spirituality at all (that I remember), and the writing is elegant without being over-lyrical.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I contributed an essay to Thoreau’s Legacy and am personally very drawn to the emotional/metaphysical contemplation of nature. But as I said, I fully understand that it’s not for everyone.

  10. Thanks, Danna! Again, it’s mostly the monoculture I object to – not the existence of people who like Thoreau. Should I ever have the urge to read modern environmental writing, I will look up Quammen. To be honest, though, I really prefer fiction for my recreational reading.

  11. I don’t think Douglas Adams’ writing was influenced by the Transcendentalists, but he was sadly only able to finish one nature book – “Last Chance to See” – before he passed away.

    Point taken about the Transcendentalist tenet of seeing the divine in nature as a basis for that running theme in environmental literature. But I would argue that theme originated with English Romanticism, as you mention, and could have easily taken hold in the new Americas without the Transcendentalists. Were it not for the efficacy of the Transcendentalists in challenging the church hegemony of the time and promoting the idea that one could connect with a greater power outside of the church (in nature or elsewhere) America would not enjoy the level of religious freedom and diversity that it sees today, from Wiccan covens to evangelical churches. A fostering of both spiritual and intellectual diversity that allowed for Joseph Priestley’s natural philosophy and the discovery of oxygen, for both Muir and Pinchot

    It may be impossible to ‘overstate their influence’ as you say, but then you posit that their influence is mainly in creating a style of nature writing that you hate. I’m just arguing that it’s much greater than that, and in some ways paved the way for writing you actually enjoy.

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